The Lab Leak Will Haunt Us Forever

Updated at 5:25 PM ET on March 1, 2023

The lab leak theory exists! Or better yet: it never dies. In response to new but unspecified intelligence, the US Department of Energy has changed its assessment of the origins of COVID-19: The agency, previously hesitant on the matter, is now classifying a laboratory incident prior to natural spread as the suspected starting point. . This conclusion, it was first reported over the weekend before the Wall Street Journalmatches the FBI’s findings, as well as a Senate minority report last fall that called the pandemic, “likely the result of a research-related accident.”

Then again, the new evaluation no Match results from elsewhere in the federal government. In mid-2021, when President Joe Biden asked the US intelligence community to conduct a 90-day review of the pandemic’s origins, the response was divided: Four agencies, plus the National Intelligence Council, guessed that COVID began (as almost all pandemics do) with natural exposure. to an infected animal; Three agencies could not decide on an answer; Nobody blamed it on a lab accident. The DOE review, revealed this week, means that one undecided vote has flipped to the lab leak camp. If you keep count – what can one really do? – It still appears to have been decided in favor of animal origin, by an updated score of 5 to 2. The lab leak theory remains the anomaly.

are we done No, we are not done. None of these assessments holds much conviction: only one, from the FBI, has been made with “moderate” confidence; The remainder are rated “low”, as in, Well, we’re not entirely sure. That lack of confidence — compared to the cavalier certainty of scientists and journalists who dismissed the possibility of a lab leak in 2020 — will now be fodder for what could be months of congressional hearings, as House Republicans seek evidence of a “possible cover” — Higher.” But for all the Sturm und Drang that is sure to come, the basic state of knowledge about the origins of COVID remains virtually unchanged from a year ago. The market’s origin story aligns with recent history and a set of well-established facts. But the leak-in-the-lab theory fits in, too. With certain respects, and – at least for the time being – they can’t be ruled out.Put all this another way: ¯ _(ツ)_/¯.

This does not mean that it is negligent. All agencies agree, for example, that SARS-CoV-2 was not intentionally designed as a weapon. And plenty of evidence has surfaced since Biden ordered his review — most notably, an accurate plot of early cases from Wuhan, China, which concludes the city’s Huanan Market complex as the epicenter of the outbreak. Many scientists with relevant knowledge believe that COVID started in that market – but their certainty could be slipping away. In this sense, the consensus on the origins of COVID seems somewhat different than that on the role of humans in global warming, although the comparison between the two is clear. Almost all climate experts agree, and they are also quite sure of their position.

The central mystery, as it is, in the origin of COVID remains intact and stands above a pair of seemingly improbable coincidences: one concerns the Huanan market, the other the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where Chinese researchers have specialized in studying bat viruses. If COVID really started in a lab one situation is going to stick, it has to be pretty An amazing coincidence that many of the early infections occurred in and around a place selling live wild animals… which is where the first SARS-CoV-2 pandemic may have started 20 years ago. But also: If COVID really started in a live animal market, it should be something similar An amazing coincidence That the market in question happened across the river from the laboratory of the world’s leading researcher of bat coronaviruses… who happened to be running experiments that could, in theory, make coronaviruses more dangerous.

One might argue about which of these coincidences is really more surprising. Indeed, this has been the crux of this debate since 2020, and a source of endless grudge. In theory, additional studies and investigations might help resolve some of this uncertainty—but it may never happen. The official investigation into the origin of the epidemic, set up by the World Health Organization, aimed to re-examine its claim from early 2021 that a laboratory source was “extremely unlikely”, through further studies and institutional reviews in China. That project has now been suspended in the face of Chinese opposition, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology long ago stopped responding to requests for information from its US-based research partners and the National Institutes of Health, according to an inspector general report from the health department. and human services.

Meanwhile, the scattered facts presented in the lab leak debates over the past two years have been, at times, insanely vague — like the unnamed “new intelligence” that affected the Department of Energy. (to sign up , the The New York Times reports that each of the agencies investigating the origins of the pandemic had access to the same intelligence; The DOE has only changed its assessment in favor of the laboratory leak explanation as a result.) We are only told that some new, classified information has changed the mind of some (but only some) anonymous analysts who now believe (with limited certainty) that it is more likely to be of laboratory origin. Well, great. I think that settles it.

When more specific information emerges, it tends to vary its narrative over time, or is promptly crushed by its partisan opponents. the magazineReports cite, for example, a finding by US intelligence that three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology contracted the disease in November 2019, in what could have been the initial cluster of infections. But how much is really known about these pathologists? Details vary by source. In one version, the scholar’s wife also fell ill, and died from the infection. Another adds the seemingly important fact that the researchers “were associated with gain-of-function research on coronaviruses.” But the unnamed current and former US officials who pass on this kind of information don’t seem to settle for its credibility.

Or look at the report published last October by ProPublica Vanity Fair, in a flurry of Chinese Community Party communications since the fall of 2019. Senate researcher Toy Reid interpreted it to mean that the Wuhan Institute of Virology underwent a major biosafety crisis in November — just when the COVID outbreak was beginning to unfold. Critics derided the story, calling it “Train wreckbased on a bad translation. In response, ProPublica asked three other translators to check the reading of Reid, who “all seemed to agree that his version was a reasonable way to represent the passage” and that the wording was ambiguous.

Perhaps this is exactly what happens when you’re trapped inside an information vacuum: Any scrap of data that floats to the surface will nudge you in new directions.

This article has been updated to clarify the nature of the project that has been put on hold by the World Health Organization.


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